White House officials have insisted they will not negotiate over raising the debt ceiling, though they are willing to discuss possible spending reductions as a separate matter. Many are veterans of the Obama administration, which faced its own debt ceiling showdown with Republicans in 2011. Ultimately, after lengthy negotiations, a bipartisan budget deal, known as the Budget Control Act, was negotiated by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and President Barack Obama, along with other top leaders. The searing experience led to the first downgrade of the credit rating for the federal government.
The law included a provision known as sequester that imposed tough caps on annual appropriations, known as discretionary spending, if Congress itself could not act to stem spending. But once Republicans won control of the White House, along with the House and Senate, in 2018 they decided to blow through the spending caps set in 2011 — and boosted discretionary spending by 16 percent.
The White House has released its annual budget plan and says a starting point for talks would be for House Republicans to release their own budget proposal. That has not happened yet. In a March 28 letter to Biden, McCarthy outlined some ideas for reducing spending, such reclaiming unspent coronavirus funds and strengthening work requirements for people without children who receive financial assistance. At a news conference Thursday, he also indicated that House Republicans might try to pass their own legislation to raise the debt ceiling and reduce spending in an effort to force a showdown.
As part of his public pressure, McCarthy released a video of clips of Biden — whom Obama had dispatched to Capitol Hill to reach a deal in 2011 — that suggested Biden was being two-faced in his refusal to negotiate over the debt limit. McCarthy jabbed: “What changed?”
This is a good example of how such clips can be misleadingly edited. We’ve tracked down the original material, so readers can see Biden’s remarks from more than a decade ago in their proper context. The words used in the video McCarthy posted are highlighted in bold type. McCarthy’s video in several cases mixed several clips from the same interview or event, so for brevity, the sequence below is slightly different from the video’s sequence.
A McCarthy spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on our conclusion that the clips were taken out of context.
“I have had the great honor of spending hours and hours and hours that you’ve covered, my negotiating the debt limit and other things, with the, with the leaders of the Republican Party.”
(Taken from an interview on “Meet the Press,” May 6, 2012)
Well, let me put it this way. I have had the great honor of spending hours and hours and hours that you’ve covered, my negotiating the debt limit and other things, with the, with the leaders of the Republican Party. And on several occasions, they’ve been prepared to make some real compromise and have ended up calling back and saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t get it done.”And— would it have solved every problem? No. … I’ll give you the best example. Republican leadership said, “Extend the payroll tax.” They couldn’t get it done till the Wall Street Journal came in and started beating up— I mean, drum beat beating on the Tea Party types. That’s the only way it could get done.In the past, it would be the Republican leadership would say, “Okay, here’s the deal, guys. This is what we’re doin’.” John Boehner wasn’t opposed to extending those taxes. But how did it happen? And I’m not criticizing John. John’s in a situation where he has— a group of people— that— that old expression. This is the tail wagging the dog. This is not your father’s Republican Party.
Analysis: The video opens with this quote, which highlights the existence of extensive negotiations in 2011. But Biden’s full remarks show that the experience appeared to be a fool’s errand. In his telling, when White House officials thought they might have had a deal, Republican leaders were not able to deliver the votes. That’s one reason the current White House does not want to hinge raising the debt ceiling on negotiations — because of a fear that any compromise agreement would not win enough votes from Republican hard-liners, leading to a default.
“A lot of those new members who came here with my way or the highway, they’ll either be on the highway or they’ll learn that they have to have compromise.”
“How do you explain the fact that grown men and women are unwilling to budge.”
“Some of them are still unwilling to budge by taking an absolute position. My way or no way, That’s not governing.”
(Taken from an interview with Scott Pelley on “CBS Evening News,” Aug. 1, 2011)
Biden: There’s not many people out there who think we can deal with our long-term economic stability without more revenues, as well as structural changes in entitlement programs. Those two things have to occur. They just have to occur. And sometimes it takes the kind of brinkmanship that was employed here, which I think was extremely dangerous.Pelley: Well, what is this? Divided government or dysfunctional government?Biden: Up until this compromise, it was dysfunctional.Pelley: You know, a lot of folks at home have watched this over the last few weeks and they’re angry.Biden: I don’t blame ’em.Pelley: You understand why?Biden: Oh, are you kidding me? How can you explain this? How can you explain the fact that grown men and women are unwilling to budge up till now, and still some of them are still unwilling to budge, by taking an absolute position: “My way or no way.” That’s not governing. That’s no way to govern. You can’t govern that way. …Pelley: Has Washington lost its ability to make deals and talk to each other? There has been so much name-calling, so much finger-pointing.Biden: This is a cycle. I predict to you that a lot of those new members who came here with “my way or the highway,” they’ll either be on the highway or they’ll learn that they have to have compromise.
Analysis: McCarthy uses three quotes from this interview. The intent is to suggest Biden is refusing to budge from his position that he will not negotiate over the debt limit, even though he appears to be saying that negotiations are necessary in Washington. But in context, Biden was making the point that the brinkmanship over the debt limit employed in 2011 was “extremely dangerous” and that eventually enough Republicans came to appreciate that to pass a bipartisan agreement.
“Really pleased and thankful all these guys showed up to begin the hard business of trying to deal with what’s at hand here.”
“We’re going to lay down not hard negotiating positions, but make sure each of us understand where the other guy is coming from.”
(Remarks to reporters regarding a debt-reduction meeting hosted by Biden at Blair House, May 5, 2011)
We’ll just make a real brief statement at the top here. I’m really pleased and thankful all these guys showed up to begin the hard business of trying to deal with what’s at hand here. We know we have two looming concerns. One is the debt limit. They’re not technically connected but the fact of the matter is practically and politically connected. We got to make sure that we also, a much larger looming issue is long-term debt. And we have got to make real progress on that. We’re all in agreement that we have to deal with both these issues and we have to make some progress. This is an opening meeting where today I had a chance to talk a little bit with each of my colleagues. We’re going to lay down not hard negotiating positions, but make sure each of us understand where the other guy is coming from, why we think the plan we put forward, each of us put forward, makes the most sense. And then we are going to get to work. And so I am optimistic, but then again I was in Congress for 36 years and I’ve always been optimistic.
Analysis: The McCarthy video cuts out the part where Biden references that each side has put forward a plan. In 2011, by April, House Republicans had passed a detailed budget blueprint that included a substantial reshaping of the Medicare health program for the elderly. So, in contrast to today, the House had already put its cards on the table. One reason the GOP is reluctant to do so now is because Democratic attacks on the Medicare overhaul proved to be effective for years to come.
“It’s going to be, you know, what it ordinarily would be, a normal political battle.”
(Remarks to reporters after meeting with progressive Democrats, Aug. 1, 2011)
The normal processes will now go forward, in terms of the appropriations committees, and debates in Congress and in the House and Senate as to whether or not we can win those debates and convince people that our initiatives should be passed. … There is room within in the budget, there is room within the budget to fund those priorities. But it’s going to be, you know, what it ordinarily would be, a normal political battle, rather than, sitting there and saying, “By the way, if you don’t do this, we are going to let the economy, the United States default, we’re going to see interest rates climb 5 or more percent, we are going to head to a double-dip recession.”
Analysis: Biden made these remarks after he tried to sell skeptical liberal Democrats on the merits of the budget deal. (In the House, the 2011 bill ended up passing with the support of 174 Republicans and 95 Democrats.) The video suggests that Biden is saying the debt limit showdown is part of a “normal political battle.” In reality, he’s saying the opposite — that once the agreement was passed, Congress could get back to functioning like a normal institution, with debates over how to best spend federal dollars.
Send us facts to check by filling out this form
Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter
The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principle